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14: Notes in Circulation

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Author Topic: 14: Notes in Circulation  (Read 52 times)
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« on: April 18, 2023, 11:50:50 am »

AN early ’phone call to Nice brought Inspector Blampignon hell-for-leather over to Menton. Gibaud had placed his office at their disposal and shortly after ten o’clock that Wednesday morning Meredith, Strang, Blampignon and Gibaud himself were seated in the small, business-like, first-floor room at the local Commissariat de Police.

Very naturally the atmosphere of the conference was one of suppressed excitement. For after weeks of indifferent progress the case had suddenly reached that conclusive phase where proven facts could be substituted for unproven, if plausible, speculation. Blampignon, his round, good-natured face wreathed in smiles, was like a cat on hot bricks. Racked with impatience, it was all he could do to tether himself to his chair. Barely had Gibaud closed the door and dropped into his seat behind the desk, when Blampignon burst out explosively:

Mon Dieu! Is it necessary that we waste time like this? Do you wish me to die of suspense, mes amis? Tell me now, what exactly is it you have managed to find out?”

“Darn nearly everything!” grinned Meredith, who with an irritating lack of haste was setting a match to the bowl of his pipe. “But don’t look to me to start the ball rolling. That’s the Sergeant’s pigeon. He’s the fellow who first set the match to the fuse and with your permission, gentlemen, I’m going to ask him to open the proceedings. Agreed?” The two French Inspectors nodded. “O.K. Sergeant. Fire ahead---it’s all yours.”

“But . . . but where exactly do you want me to begin?” stammered Freddy, somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility that had suddenly been thrust upon him.

“Begin at the beginning, m’lad,” suggested Meredith drily. “It’s always a sound idea.”

“You mean with what I happened to see that morning in the garage-yard at the Villa Paloma?” Meredith nodded. “O.K. sir. Well, early last Sunday morning I . . .”

And without more ado Freddy described in detail all that he’d witnessed through his peep-hole in the lattice gate---Shenton’s arrival in the Vedette; the strange “catch” that he appeared to have brought back from his early-morning fishing expedition; his hasty concealment of the tar-spotted boulder when the maid had come out into the yard. Every now and then, at Blampignon’s request, he had to break off so that Gibaud could translate some phrase that his colleague was unable to grasp. Freddy then turned to the walk he’d taken with Dilys Westmacott the previous afternoon. After describing the route they’d followed out to Cap Martin, he went on:

“We clambered out over the rocks to a point only a few yards from the sea. Miss Westmacott sat for a moment and we started chatting. Well, to cut a long story short, I happened to notice an empty wine-bottle stuck up on a rock a few yards ahead of us.” Freddy grinned. “Naturally I couldn’t resist the invitation, and I began chucking pebbles at the thing. At the third shot I hit it fair and square. And then, just close to it, I spotted the boulder.”

“The boulder?” enquired Blampignon. “What is?” Gibaud explained. “Ah! The piece of rock. And what is the significance of your discovery, mon ami?”

“Well, sir, I noticed that it had tar-stains on it like the one Shenton had taken from his creel. And the arrangement of the stains---five dots like a lopsided domino-five---was identical!

Mon Dieu!” breathed Blampignon gustily. “Go on! Go on!”

“I realized at once that these five dots couldn’t have got there by chance---I mean exactly the same number and arrangement in both cases. It seemed pretty obvious that they’d been painted on. And then it struck me that the upended bottle might have some connection with the boulder---that it might have been set up there as a kind of marker. Without Miss Westmacott realizing I managed to decipher the label on one of the broken pieces. Nuits St. George, sir.”

“Nuits St. George!” echoed Blampignon excitedly as he turned to Meredith. “But that was the label on the empty bottle you saw on the rocks after we surprise the launch on Saturday night!”

“Exactly,” nodded Meredith. “And it was there for the same reason---to pin-point the spot where one of these specially marked and specially designed boulders had been set ashore off the launch. Yesterday, when Strang passed the spot, he noticed that the bottle had gone. Presumably the boulder had been collected in the interim and the bottle thrown into the sea or hidden in the undergrowth.”

“But why . . . what . . . ?” floundered Blampignon with a blank, almost imbecile, expression on his swarthy features.

Meredith laughed.

“Let me tidy it up for you, my dear fellow. Mind if I take over now, Sergeant? Right! Then let’s get down to the fundamental facts of the mystery. The launch we surprised on Saturday night was the Hirondelle---no mistake about that. Latour was aboard her with A. N. Other---this enigmatic figure in cloak and wide-brimmed hat whom my good friend Gibaud here claims to be a woman. Latour was there for one reason and one reason only---to land one of these curiously marked boulders and to mark its position with an empty bottle of Nuits St. George. Aboard the launch, by the way, I found a crate half-full of these empty bottles.”

Mon Dieu!” cried Blampignon, clapping his hands despairingly to his head. “Do not let us worry about these bottles. It is the pieces of rock I do not understand.”

“Neither did we at first,” admitted Meredith. “Until we laid our hands on one and succeeded in opening it.”

“Opening it?” demanded Gibaud, bewildered. “What the devil do you mean?”

“Fixed under the centre dot of the domino-five was a perfectly concealed spring-catch. By luck I pressed the right spot and the top of the contraption hinged back. Inside, of course, it was hollow. A thick lead plate was let into the base of the rock to counteract the loss of weight due to this hollow. Neat, eh? To all appearances the lump of rock both looked and felt genuine.”

“And the hollow,” asked Blampignon, “for what was it made?”

“To conceal a nice thick wad of counterfeit notes all fresh and crackling from the press, my dear fellow.”

Blampignon jumped to his feet.

“So that is how they work it! The press was on board L’Hirondelle---is that how you mean?”

“Ingenious, eh?” chuckled Meredith. “What better place to set it up? All Latour had to do was to cruise around off-shore at night, print off a prearranged consignment of dud notes, slap ’em into one of these boulder affairs and dump the stuff at some lonely spot along the nearby coastline.”

“But why these elaborate precautions?” asked Gibaud. “Why not walk off the launch with the notes in his pocket?”

“Because there was always a chance that the police might grow suspicious of his nocturnal trips in the Hirondelle. If the launch was searched or Latour frisked as he came ashore . . . well, he’d have as much chance of getting away with it as an icicle in hell! That money was hot, and Latour wasn’t going to risk handling it. Sensible, you’ll admit. With their particular modus operandi there was absolutely nothing to connect the Hedderwick launch with any sort of racket.”

“Nothing? Nothing?” cried Blampignon, who was now striding about the room in a perfect dither of excitement. “How do you mean . . . nothing? What about the printing-press? Are we so stupid, we police, that if we see a printing-press on a boat we ask no questions? Merdre! I do not believe that one, mon vieux.”

“Hang on! Not so fast,” chuckled Meredith. “You Frenchmen always pride yourselves on your logicality. Well, let’s look at this from a logical point of view.”

Eh bien, that is just what I do!” protested Blampignon.

“Not entirely,” corrected Meredith. “Now be honest, old man. You wouldn’t start searching the launch for an illicit printing-press unless you had definite proof that Latour was a member of a gang. And if neither he nor any member of his crew were caught with the notes on their person---I mean as they came ashore---would you honestly suspect that the counterfeiting was being worked from the Hirondelle? Owned, remember, by the highly respectable Mrs. Hedderwick.”

“No,” admitted Blampignon with a hangdog look. “That is true. Without we catch him coming off the boat with the notes on him, how should we suspect?”

“Precisely. Don’t forget that when we did catch up with Latour it was via Guillevin, the tobacconist, and Jacques Dufil, the hunchback. It was sheer crazy carelessness on Latour’s part to bribe Dufil with forged notes. And even then we shouldn’t have associated the racket with the Hirondelle if we hadn’t had that chance encounter with the launch off Cap Martin on Saturday night. Agreed?”

Mais oui,” said Blampignon sheepishly. “That is good sense.”

“Well, that’s my first point. Now for the second. Even when my investigations did lead me to the Hirondelle, I found absolutely nothing suspicious about her. Admittedly, when I searched the boat on Monday I wasn’t specifically looking for a printing-press, because I’d no idea then how the trick was being worked. You follow?”

Oui, oui—parfaitement,” nodded Blampignon.

“But last night, when Strang and I searched the launch again, we boarded her expecting to unearth the press. But even then, if it hadn’t been for a fortunate mishap I guess we’d have chucked our theory overboard and kidded ourselves that the press wasn’t aboard the Hirondelle.”

“And when you did find it?” asked Gibaud eagerly. “Where exactly----?”

Meredith cut in with a malicious twinkle:

“Oh, no---I’m not going to spoon-feed you fellows. When we’re through with this pow-wow we’re driving down to the harbour and I’m going to give you and Blampignon a chance to discover the darn thing for yourselves! But before we do that let’s return to the receiving-end of the set-up---the collecting and disposal of the notes once they’d come off the press. As far as the Sergeant and I have been able to ascertain there are only three men working the racket---four, if we include the elusive ‘Chalky’.”

“And those?” enquired Gibaud.

“Latour, Shenton and Bourmin. Latour, printing; Shenton, collecting; Bourmin, disposing. And of these three, I’ve a very strong suspicion that the Englishman’s the one behind the organization. Now for the details. You recall the Sergeant’s evidence concerning Shenton’s early-morning fishing expeditions?” The two Inspectors nodded. “Well, that was the alibi he employed when picking up the notes. Simple, eh? A bit of fishing, say, off Cap Martin or wherever they’d agreed to put ashore the notes. A quick look around for the empty wine-bottle. Another casual glance around in the vicinity of the marker for a medium-sized boulder bearing five tar stains. Even if there were other anglers out on the rocks it would be perfectly easy for Shenton to slip the boulder unnoticed into his creel.”

Gibaud protested:

“I still think it sounds damnably over-complicated.”

“Not a bit of it. The notes had to be set ashore in some sort of container. And that container had to merge into the surrounding landscape like a chameleon. What better than one more lump of rock amid a million others? Actually there’s more to it than that, but I’ll deal with this in due course. Anyway, we’ve now got irrefutable evidence that this was the way Shenton worked it. Yesterday evening when we drove over to Cap Martin we took with us an empty bottle of Nuits St. George. This we set up on the rock where the Sergeant had spotted the original marker—the one he smashed with that pebble! To allay all suspicion we picked up every piece of broken glass. Later, at the Villa Paloma, I had a private word with Miss Westmacott. I asked her to keep watch from her window to see if Shenton set out early this morning on one of his little angling jaunts. If so, she was to ring me at my hotel.”

“And she did?” asked Blampignon.

“Yes---he left about six-thirty. And if that isn’t conclusive proof, then I’ll grow a beard and like it!” chuckled Meredith. “So much for that. Once the Sergeant had stumbled on the boulder clue the remaining links in our chain of evidence snapped very neatly into place. We drove over to Malloy’s villa at Beaulieu and found just what we were looking for---a five-spot, perfectly natural-looking lump of rock that was used to prop open one of the garage doors.”

“But how did it get there?” demanded Blampignon instantly. “This Bourmin disposes of the notes. He does not collect them. At least that is what you tell us just now.”

“Quite, my dear chap. We asked ourselves the same question. How did Bourmin pick up the notes from Shenton over at Menton? Did Shenton deliver them in person? If so, when and where? It struck us that it wouldn’t be easy for Shenton and Bourmin to arrange a rendezvous. Bourmin never knew when exactly he’d be on duty. The Colonel made that point clear. The chauffeur was often called out at a moment’s notice. Besides it wouldn’t be easy for Shenton, with a pretty full private life, to nip away from the villa just when he pleased.” Meredith turned to Strang. “And then we hit on the explanation, eh, Sergeant?”

“A winner all the way, sir!” exclaimed Strang.

“You see,” went on Meredith, “we found out that every Friday night Bourmin drove the Malloys over to the Villa Paloma for an evening’s bridge. And it struck us at once that this was the link we were looking for. Here was a chance for Bourmin to collect the specie without rousing the slightest suspicion. Nobody, in fact, even suggested that Bourmin knew either Latour or Shenton.”

“And you find out that your theory was right . . . how?” asked Blampignon.

“From Beaulieu we drove direct to Mrs. Hedderwick’s. In the garage-yard there we found an identical boulder employed in exactly the same way. You see the beautiful simplicity of it all? Bourmin slips the empty boulder into the Rolls---probably under the driving-seat or some other suitable spot. After dropping the Malloys at the front-door, he parks the Rolls in the garage-yard at the rear of the villa. There he substitutes the empty boulder for the one that Shenton has placed ready for him. Doubtless Latour was responsible for conveying the empty containers from the villa to the boat---presumably in the rucksack that, according to Miss Westmacott, he used for carrying his painting gear. As I see it, there was a chain of boulders kept in continuous motion. Villa to boat, boat to shore, shore back to Villa Paloma, Paloma to Valdeblore, Valdeblore back to Paloma and so on and so on.” Meredith paused, pulled out a handkerchief, mopped his brow and turned with a triumphant expression to his French confrères. “Well, gentlemen, that’s our story and we hope you like it. Now before we drive down to the Hirondelle are there any----?”

There was a rap on the door.

Entrez!” sang out Gibaud.

A constable entered.

Pour M’sieur Meredith.”

He held out the cablegram which had been sent round post-haste to the Commissariat by the manager of the Hotel Louis.

“Ah, thanks,” nodded Meredith. “I was expecting this.” Adding the moment the constable had closed the door: “A little enquiry I made at the Yard concerning our friend Shenton.” Hastily slitting open the envelope, he scanned the enclosed message and emitted a low whistle. “Well, well---what do you know? Just listen to this, gentlemen---Reference your enquiry stop person in question served six months Wormwood Scrubs 1939 stop theft West-end night-club stop charged under name referred your cable but at time trial suspected to be alias stop this never proved stop.” Meredith glanced round with a self-satisfied smile, slipped the cablegram back into the envelope and thrust it in his pocket. “So my feelings about that young fellow weren’t misplaced. As I suspected, a Bad Hat. I felt sure I’d seen his face before and I probably had . . . in the Rogues’ Gallery at the Yard!” Meredith paused to relight his pipe, then added: “Now before we drive down to the Hirondelle, are there any questions, gentlemen?”

Mais oui,” nodded Blampignon. “Just one little question. This figure in the cloak---you say Gibaud here suspect that it is a woman. And by the way you say it, mon ami, I think you do not agree, eh?”

“I do not!” said Meredith emphatically. “And for one very good reason. Now that we know for certain that the notes were being run off the press aboard the launch, I’m convinced that Latour’s companion was a man.”

“A man?” asked Blampignon impatiently. “But what man?”

“A man who was indispensable to the working of that press. A man upon whose expert knowledge and technical skill Latour would be forced to rely. The king-pin, in fact, of the whole shady set-up.”

Sacré nom!” exclaimed Blampignon, with an upward roll of his dark expressive eyes. “ ‘Chalky’ Cobbett himself!”

“Exactly,” smiled Meredith. “The gentleman I was sent down here to collect.”

---

“Well,” called down Meredith from the quayside, “any luck, m’lads?”

Blampignon stuck a flushed and sheepish face out of the cabin-door and, glancing up at his tormentor, shook his fist.

“One half of an hour and we find nothing---nothing, mon vieux! C’est incroyable. But I have no more patience to continue the search. You have had your little laugh, perhaps?”

“And how!” chuckled Meredith maliciously. He nodded to Strang, who was squatting on a nearby bollard. “O.K. Let’s get aboard and put ’em out of their misery.”

Dropping lightly on to the deck of the launch, Meredith and Strang, followed by the two French Inspectors, passed through into the for’ard cabin. There Meredith flicked on his pocket-torch and opened up a dark, deeply-recessed locker let into the starboard side of the boat beyond the double-tiered berths. Motioning his colleagues forward, Meredith announced with a dramatic flourish of his hand:

Voilà, messieurs! The answer to the mystery!”

“The fresh-water tank!” exclaimed Gibaud. “But confound it, we lifted the lid and looked inside it. The darn thing’s brimful of water.”

“That’s what we thought,” admitted Meredith. “I even shone my torch inside to make sure. If I hadn’t done so, we’d still be groping, eh, Strang?”

“You mean you see something strange about the tank that awake your suspicion?” asked Blampignon.

Meredith shook his head.

“No---even then I spotted nothing odd about it.”

“Then how the devil . . . ?” began Gibaud, bewildered.

“My torch slipped out of my hand and fell into the water---that’s all.” Meredith groped in his pocket and pulled out a chip of stone that he’d picked up on the quayside. He handed it to Blampignon. “Just drop this in and watch carefully, my dear fellow.”

As Meredith directed the rays of his torch down into the tank, Blampignon dropped the stone into it with a gentle plop. It descended for about eighteen inches and then, as if affected by some incalculable freak of gravity, appeared to remain suspended in the water.

“But, mon Dieu!” exclaimed Blampignon, “it is not natural! What is the explanation?”

“This,” said Meredith curtly.

Reaching forward, whilst Strang kept the lid hinged back as far as it would go, Meredith cautiously gripped the rim of the tank and lifted out the false tank that was cunningly fitted into the top of the receptacle. Beneath it was a deep recess, insulated from the outer sides of the tank by a kind of four-inch water-jacket. Inside this recess was the printing-press!

“Good heavens!” cried Gibaud. “No wonder we didn’t tumble to it. We sounded the tank, of course, to make sure that it wasn’t hollow.”

“Quite,” nodded Meredith. “And you suspected nothing because of this ingenious idea of fitting a second smaller tank inside the first and filling the space between ’em with water. We got caught the same way. We’ve certainly got to hand it to ‘Chalky’, because I’ll wager a week’s wages that he was the blighter who hit on the idea. All he and Latour had to do was to lift the press out of the recess, print off the notes, lift the press back in again and refit this tray of water into the top of the tank. I imagine the base of the tray escaped our attention because the light of the torch was reflected from the surface of the water and acted as a blinder. At any rate, that’s how the trick was worked. And the only outstanding problem we’ve got on our hands is this---where the deuce is ‘Chalky’ Cobbett? Find the answer to that one and we’re all set, I imagine, to pull in the wanted men.”

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